Regarded as the “greatest Venetian artist of the sixteenth century”, Titian is a name that has been heard most recently rolling off art conoisseurs’ tongues and splattered across newspaper headlines since August 2008 when the Duke of Sutherland made public his intention to sell two of the artist’s greatest masterpieces with the first right of refusal to the National Galleries of Scotland and London. Caught between the devil and deep blue sea the National Galleries jointly embarked on a campaigning mission to buy the paintings in addition to securing the loan of other important works from the Duke’s Bridgewater Collection in the name of the British nation. Over the summer, in celebration of the reunion of the two mythological, poesi works with The Death of Actaeon, a third work by Titian from the same series that was purchased by the National Galleries in 1972, and aiming to pay tribute to them through a commission of reaction works by contemporary artists Chris Ofili, Mark Wallinger and Conrad Shawcross along with the Royal Ballet, the National Gallery of London (NGL) hosted the exhibition ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’. But was it ethically justifiable to purchase the Titians on behalf of the British nation?
Below an imposing, stone staircase in a secluded basement wing of the National Gallery hung Titian’s three large-scale paintings that were originally commissioned by King Phillip II of Spain between 1551 and 1562, and that were inspired on the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The two recently purchased works had been on a long-term loan from the Bridgewater Collection to the National Galleries since 1945 and were bought in fear that the works would vanish from public eye into a private collection, and because of the Duke’s relatively “cheap” asking price of £100 million for both of them. Moreover, the concern of losing two of the main star works from the NG’s pristine collection in addition to ensuring “that 26 other Bridgewater pictures [would] continue to remain on long-term loan” was a risk they could not take. The unfortunate coincidence of the sale’s announcement with the collapse of the American hedge fund Lehman Brothers was surprisingly no obstacle in the race against the seven-year time frame set by the Duke of Sutherland for the purchase of both artworks to take place. After only four years of persistent campaigning, fundraising and a £5 million discount, the National Galleries succeeded in securing Diana and Callisto along with Diana and Actaeon for the British nation for the mere sum of £95 million making them “the most expensive acquisitions ever made by a UK public collection”.
Titian’s three paintings were purchased separately by means of the National Galleries’ reserve, government aid, grants and donations from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund and The Monument Trust Fund in addition to contributions from the public. The Death of Actaeon joined NGL’s official inventory in 1972 under skeptical circumstances as the work had been withdrawn from loan to them and sent to be auctioned off at Christie’s where it was bought for $4,032,000 on June 25, 1971 by the J. Paul Getty Museum of California. As stated in the work’s provenance description in a National Gallery catalogue, “the export license applied for by the latter [The Getty Museum] was delayed by the Reviewing Committee for a year, during which time the purchase price paid by the Getty Museum was raised by public appeal, with the aid of a special Exchequer grant and contributions from the N.A-C.F. and the Pilgrim Trust, a large anonymous donation and many corporate and individual contributions. As a result, purchased 1972.”
The new purchase price was set at £1,763,000 and as it was expected, the National Gallery managed to round up the sum by using £1 million from their reserve, £381,500 from government aid and the rest was raised through donations from the public. The lack of transparency of the purchase in general, starting with the delay of the export license leaves much to be said about NG’s means and what it is willing to do to assert their position as “one of the greatest collections of Western European painting in the world”. The UK government’s hand in the matter is clear and it might possibly be the way with which it has managed to retain so many of the world’s masterpieces: through “regulatory arbitrage [that has lead] to trade diversions and distortions […]” It was not ethically correct to have purchased The Death of Actaeon because there already were, and still are, a significant number of Titians in the collection.
In the case of Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon, the Art Newspaper reported that in the open market the pair would probably sell for around £180 million to £300 million. In comparison to the £95 million for which they were bought, it is clear that the National Galleries got them for a bargain. The UK and the NG’s first-world cash flow and liquidity is evident just by briefly looking at the price breakdown of the money’s provenance for each work. £12.5 million for Diana and Actaeon and £25 million for Diana and Callisto came from the NG’s reserves; Britain’s well-established organizations devoted to saving heritage works raised £40.4 million of tax-deductible money that were missing, not counting the £17.1 million donated by the Scottish government. It was both convenient for the National Galleries and for the Duke to see the sale through as there was also a matter of inheritance tax.
Taking into consideration Britain’s liquidity, the 200 years that the works have remained in UK soil, their provenance, and not only their monetary but also their cultural value, it was ethically correct to have purchased them as they are in a public collection where everyone is entitled to see them. Also, the National Gallery is a place where the paintings will be properly taken care of. However, the excuse that they were purchased on behalf of the British nation is unfit because the National Galleries’ other motives must be brought into light. If it were all about saving the works for the country and the people, the devil’s advocate would have to argue that Titian was not even English and the works don’t represent British artistic culture. Moreover, it is a fact that the Bridgewater Collection and its trophy objects form the NG’s core. Additionally, some of the public benefits of keeping the Titians was and still is that their presence is a very important attraction to the many visitors that come to the UK. They serve as a mean “for [the] nation to gain international status and recognition” which leads to employment for people and the “benefit for present generations involved in knowing that, regardless of whether they are interested in art or not, future generations will be able to enjoy and consume historical cultural assets”. Nevertheless, it is a privilege for the Britain and the rest of the world to have paintings of this caliber at our reach; the campaign’s call to arms was just too much.